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November 4 th 2023 - 19:08 [GMT + 9]
- The stars of the Tour spent the final hours before the ninth edition of the Saitama Criterium mingling with the crowd and engaging in activities that were a big hit with the Japanese fans.
- Tadej Pogačar, whose drawing got a round of applause, is set to make his debut in the event. "I'm looking forward to it", said the world number one.
- The peloton features another two former Tour winners, Egan Bernal and Chris Froome, as well as the king of the mountains of the last edition, Giulio Ciccone, and the rider who finished tenth overall, Guillaume Martin, fresh off his three-week tour of Japan.
A "pretty special" tenth anniversary for Froome
On Sunday, the Saitama Criterium will be holding its ninth edition and celebrating its tenth anniversary, a decade after its launch in 2013. Chris Froome —one of the three former Tour de France winners present in Japan, along with Tadej Pogačar and Egan Bernal— has fond memories of the inaugural edition, in which he romped to victory in the yellow jersey: "It's been ten years and it's pretty special to see how far the event has come. It's become a must for the Japanese fans. And, for riders like me, it's a chance to meet and greet them. In a way, it reminds us of how important cycling is and how its borders extend far beyond Europe. It's a very special event, our last race of the year.". The peloton will complete 17 laps of a 3.5 km course, for a total of 59.5 km, in a race broadcast in 190 countries around the world. Viewers in France can watch it live from 6:45 am on Eurosport and the L'Équipe digital platform, as well as the official Facebook and Twitter feeds of the Tour de France. A bit earlier, the riders will have tackled the circuit for the first time in a team time trial. Junior riders, paracyclists and Keiko Sugiura, a two-time gold medallist in the Tokyo Olympics, will also race against the clock on an individual basis.
Kuss's strokes of genius
On Saturday, the Tour champions engaged in several activities that made the Japanese crowds go wild. The Saitama Super Arena was decked out with decorations including heart-shaped banners for "Pogi" and a neat photo montage in tribute to the "Eagle of Durango" —the Vuelta a España champion, Sepp Kuss. The American showed his flair for beautiful writing in an introduction to shūji, Japanese calligraphy, which is still taught in primary schools. Clad in a hakama, a type of traditional Japanese clothing, the Jumbo–Visma rider was invited to draw the kanji characters for "red", in a nod to the colour of the leader's jersey in the Vuelta a España. His strokes were so well done that it was hard to tell him apart from a Japanese writer, he thought to himself. Meanwhile, Giulio Ciccone produced a work symbolising the mountains. "Did I get it right? Did I get it wrong? I don't know, but it was hard!", confessed the king of the mountains of the last Tour.
Cavendish pips Pogačar at the post… in drawing
A drawing contest was also organised in the presence of Wataru Watanabe, the author of the manga Yowamushi Pedal, which tells the story of a geek who becomes a cyclist. When asked to rate his own skills, the world number one, Tadej Pogačar, gave himself a mark of… 0 on a scale from 1 to 10! He was being too modest. His pencil drawing of a Shinkansen Japanese bullet train was received with cheers, but the last rider to unveil his work, Mark Cavendish, beat him to the line —or, should we say, in the clap-o-meter— with a depiction of a little green dragon, the emblem of Saitama. That is not the final word, though, as Pogačar is determined to exact revenge on two wheels on Sunday. "I'm looking forward to it", chirped the Slovenian, who has already raced twice in Japan, first in the 2018 Japan Cup and then in the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, although he has never entered the Saitama Criterium before.
"Japan is always an adventure" for Martin
Just like last year, Guillaume Martin, who finished tenth in the Tour, is lining up for the Saitama Criterium after a three-week tour of Japan, a country that he loves "for a whole lot of reasons". "My father taught aikido for forty years", explains the Cofidis climber. "He lived in Japan while he learned this martial art. I actually practised it myself for ten years when I was younger." The Norman and his partner visited the "less touristy" northern regions of the country, namely, Tohoku and southern Hokkaido, before taking a detour around the Japanese Alps and Sado Island. "There was a bit of everything. We went for quite a few hikes and pleasure rides. We visited temples and samurai homes. And Japan is always an adventure for the taste buds!" As for the Saitama Criterium, he recalls that his first participation, last year, was "a tough race". "I hope it'll be a bit easier this time round", he smiles. "This is also about meeting our Japanese fans. You can see they have fire in their bellies. It's pretty incredible. Even in Europe, we don't get this rock star treatment."